Zimmerman and Bail in the Swamp We Call Florida
George Zimmerman is now behind bars, to the delight of those who believe he killed Trayvon Martin with neither justification nor excuse. But the trial of that case has not yet taken place. The question of whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense has not yet been decided. All that has been decided, apparently, and this by a judge, and not a jury, is that Zimmerman was less than candid when he reported on the resources available to him when bail was set in his case.
Seminole County Circuit Court judge Kenneth Lester, Jr., set bond in Zimmerman’’s case at $150,000. By Eighth Amendment standards, that was a sum sufficient to assure that Zimmerman would return to court. Among the facts judge Lester considered was, presumably, the threat Zimmerman posed to the community and the risk that Zimmerman would flee. The judge also relied upon representations by Zimmerman’s wife and his lawyer that the man was broke.
It turns out an Internet appeal for funds, a virtual defense fund, was percolating along at an impressive rate. At the time the bond was set, there was about $135,000 in a PayPal account associated with a Zimmerman web site. What’s more, according to Florida prosecutors, Zimmerman knew the money was there but failed to disclose it when the court set bond.
The judge is upset about that. Or, as Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, gamely explains: “Judge Lester runs a very tight courtroom, as well he should. He didn’t believe they were being as straightforward and honest as he wanted them to.” So the judge revoked Zimmerman’s bond, and yesterday, Zimmerman reported to jail as ordered.
From a distance the bond revocation looks petty and spiteful, and the means by which it was discovered ought to be the real target of judge Lester’s scorn. One suspects the judge was still smarting over the licking he took in the press for setting a low bond in a case charging second-degree murder.
Let’s review some fundamentals.
Zimmerman is presumed innocent and awaits trial. He has a right to remain silent. He has a right to released pending trial on a reasonable bail.
No one has suggested that Zimmerman suddenly became a flight risk because he failed to disclose to the judge the contents of the PayPal account. No one has suggested that Zimmerman became a greater danger to the community either. All that has been suggested is that the man is a liar. Lack of candor is not a reason to revoke bond and remand a pre-trial defendant to custody.
If Zimmerman lied, then, by all means, hold him in contempt. If he committed perjury, then charge him with the crime. But let’s not pretend that because he lacked candor when it came time to decide whether to disclose the contents of his defense fund to a judge he should now be deemed a flight risk or a greater danger to the community. The logic supporting those conclusions is simply obscene.
And just how did the state of Florida discover this lack of candor? It trolled through recordings of the conversations Zimmerman had of his wife while the man was briefly incarcerated pending his bond hearing. In other words, the state was eavesdropping on the intimate conversations of a man presumed innocent. Why no outrage over that, judge Lester?
Prison officials have a right to listen in on the conversations of inmates, even of pre-trial detainees. The Supreme Court justifies this tawdry practice by citing the penological interests in security. Prison officials need to know what’s going on in the cages they force men and women to inhabit in the name of justice. That’s all fine and dandy, I suppose, as an administrative matter. Let the warden do his job. But why are wardens free to turn over these recordings to prosecutors absent a warrant? There is no justification for making the plantation master into the prosecutor’s chief investigator. Had Zimmerman been free and out of jail, the state would not have been free to listen in on his telephone conversations with his wife.
Judge Lester brings the moral sensibility of an IRS auditor to the question of determining a reasonable bond. No fixed sum represents what Zimmerman should be required to post for his freedom. No, what’s necessary is a percentage of his soul, and that soul is expressed in dollars; the more dollars you have, the more the government wants: a millionaire needs to pay more for his liberty than does a pauper.
George Zimmerman may be guilty of murder. I don’t know. I do know he will soon stand trial and a jury of his peers will evaluate the question of whether he was justified in killing Trayvon Martin. If he is found guilty, he will have lost the presumption of innocence and will spend long years behind bars. Just why judge Lester came to believe that Zimmerman ought to begin his sentence now is a mystery.
Yes, Zimmerman may have lacked candor to the court on the resources at his disposal, and, yes, the court should be angry about that. But Zimmerman had a right to remain silent. Does he need be compelled to speak to earn the right to be free on bond? The Eighth Amendment doesn’t say that, even in that swamp we call Florida.